Wednesday, September 24, 2014

In Conversation: Cameron Robbins

Cameron Robbins is a conjurer of natural forces, a corraller of wind and waves. Working predominantly with large kinetic sculptures he works in collaboration with forces generated by the weather, the environment and motored machines. For Composing Common Worlds we were excited to exhibit some of Cameron's photography and a very subtle, but weighty, new sculptural work. A fortnight ago, Cameron also conducted our very first Kids Drawing Session in the foyer of the Arts Centre and guided a group of eager young artists in the production of two large scale abstract drawings. We recently talked to Cameron about his work, his music and his engagement with the forces of nature, looking to unpack some of the driving energy of his own creative will.

Cameron Robbins talking about his work with the audience on opening night
THG: We’re excited to have a series of your photographs in Composing Common Worlds, from your Mt Jim project. I enjoy describing them to visitors as an integration of performance, drawing and photography, and I can see people trying to mentally retrace your pathways in the images as I talk about their making. You’re well-known for building kinetic sculptures that create drawings but in this instance it feels like you took more control of the process and you allowed your body to be the driving mechanism of the work’s creation. What motivated you to put your own body, invisible as it is, more at the heart of this series?

Cameron Robbins: Walking and mapping with the body in motion are historical subjects in art. In fact, the Older Volcanic high-plains area of “Mt Jim” (elevation 1818m) is also home to the Falls Creek Artists Camp, which I have participated in for the last 10 years and which evolved from bushwalking and camping with other artists. So this work has grown out of both an international and local history of artists camping and walking.

My work often involves a technical approach to bring out images or marks from otherwise invisible forces/energy. The ideas I develop have their own technical needs. For instance, the wind drawing machines grew out of simple experimentation and got more complex, rotary, engineered; so I had to learn some skills to express these ideas.

‘Mapping’ is a familiar word in art, but I really am doing that at Mt Jim. I wanted to try and visualise the shape of this very localised special magnetic force on a remote rock outcrop. So I had to think of a way to do it, how to actually outline this force field, make a drawing of it, maybe a sculpture. How could I walk 3 hours into the mountain in a backpack, camp for 3 nights, and come away with something to show?

I realised that a way I could draw this field was to begin making outlines by day using the compass, and with a small lightbulb trace them out at night during long exposure photographs. I developed a system using more or less lines to express intensity of the field.

I like the idea of experiencing this place with mind and body. Despite there being little or no scientific basis for the idea of geomagnetic–field influence on the person, I couldn’t help wondering if something strange could be felt, sleeping up there. What’s the Indigenous take on the place?  Even the name has been lost, replaced with this off-hand and ridiculous nickname. Every trail we walk is part of the most ancient map.


Cameron Robbins, Mt Jim Anomaly Loop 1 (2012), (c) Courtesy of the artist.
THG: Well, speaking of navigating trails and invisible forces, you have a fully functioning compass setup in the gallery. It activates the space in a very intriguing way, making it somehow energised by articulating a force not normally acknowledged in galleries. Can you tell us about the construction of this sculpture, with its gorgeous rock support and sextant/oil rig looking construction on top?

Cameron Robbins: The experience up on the magnetic mountain stirred my enquiries into geo-magnetism. For some time I've been looking to present a geomagnetic piece in a show. I really like the way the compass links to the greater earth outside the galley; it has always awed me to think of the whole earth, the molten iron core, south and north poles, when you look at even the tiniest compass or a cork and needle in a bowl of water. It's a fantastic reminder of scale: the earth and a person.

On Mt Jim I used a compass to map out the magnetic anomaly. I noticed that on particularly strong field areas there, if I lifted the compass vertically the needle would turn right around, indicating that the fields are twisting in vertical planes. I feel a lot more work could be done up there.

It occurred to me that using strong magnets and a very low friction bearing and nice balance, I might be able to create a large scale sculptural compass. So I used non-magnetic materials - brass, tungsten, glass, to make a sculptural instrument which relates to landscape. Magnets, iron and iron filings provide the motive force.

It's very important to have the presence of basalt in my piece.  It is that material that binds the work together, the photographs and the sculpture, the locality and the physicality of the site. The whole volcanic outcrop at Mt Jim is basalt, most likely with the presence of magnetite creating the anomaly. This stone in the exhibition is from a different region, and from much younger lava flows to the near north of Melbourne, and was collected from a marginal site on the stonemason's land.
Cameron Robbins, Outcrop (2014), photo by Jim Lee Photo
THG: Can you tell us a bit about your working methods? You often make these wild and complicated machines for your sculptures that ultimately produce drawings. What led you to making these and how do you experiment with them in the studio with a view to their on-location positioning?

Cameron Robbins: Actually I started working with boats to make abstract 'automatic' drawings in 1990. I recorded their responses to waves, wind and tides by directing them to draw on the walls of the boatshed via simple devices of wires, weights, and pulleys. 

I was reading about Benoît Mandelbrot, the mathematician who developed fractals and chaos theory. The variations in natural energies and processes that he was describing struck me as an analogue to art-making: the way nature takes an energy and kind of riffs on it, developing endless variations a bit like a jazz improvisation. 

I began to work on a series of rotary wind powered drawing machines - which I am still working on and find endlessly exciting - that could draw something like a planetary orbit, complete with non- repeating cycles and the capacity for flexibility within my parameters; skeins of lines relating to the Poincaré maps of chaos theory. The drawings really interested me; I had found a way of working with the world that reflected my observations and was my own thing. For me it also offered a nice side step over vexing issues like self-consciousness in art making.

Over many years I have worked on methods to create devices in the studio and test, using electric motors and fans, for interesting motion and reliability, before taking them out environmental energy sites - including galleries, ocean and mountains.

THG: You mentioned jazz improvisation, which helps me segue into a your audio instrumentality. You’re a musician and on occasion you’ve incorporated your music with your art - the audio with the visual. How do you see that relationship playing out for you, are these things intimately entwined or is there a division in your mind?

Cameron Robbins: In the last few years I have very consciously tried to bring the worlds of art and music together, creating improvised performances using the sounds of drawing machines together with bass clarinet and other musicians/sound artists. Around 1998 I started making really musical artworks, such as the pipe organ works connected to bonfire steam generators, ocean waves, blowholes, and waterfalls.


From the age of 15 I studied classical music formally at High School and jazz at home, with my dad on piano teaching me how to improvise and play by ear. So especially older swing and New Orleans jazz has a place in my heart and soul. I have a professional life as a musician on clarinet - I play a weekly gig with some great musicians.

It was very separate for a long time, because it often felt awkward playing in art circles because of the different expectations of music. The traditions of jazz can be quite demanding and sort of conservative too, and I had difficulties making it work with art. It feels like a very different space, working with old jazz tunes, or making art with wind machines and waves in the landscape. I hope one day to make something that brings these more together. It must have some relevance or currency when you think about it - a person doing both these activities here and now, a cultural occurrence of this time and place.

THG: You’re about to head off to Japan very soon. What are you going to see and do over there? Visiting some interesting geography?

Cameron Robbins: I'm in volcanic Japan looking into geothermal steam vents as a potential driving force for a drawing machine or art thing. There is a residency program for artists here in Beppu, the project called "Mixed Bathing World"! Beppu is on the island of Kyushu in the western end of the archipelago, the same island which is home to Nagasaki. This town is the second most geothermally active place on the planet - pouring out of the earth is 100 million litres of hot water a day, and steam vents everywhere.


I applied for the residency but got knocked back, but contacted them again and found there is the Platform 5 project you can apply for, a studio residence you can book for any time period.  Apparently the steam vents are powerful, fast and very hot of course - so I will see how it could be approached. 

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